1999 Lost Worlds of Asia – Myanmar

The second path, Myanmar

My arrival in Myanmar wasn’t an easy one. Especially after the experiences in Bhutan it was hard to cope with my first impressions after arrival. It was pouring down rain and at a certain time there was 40 cm. of water in some of the streets of Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. This made the run down houses look even worse than they really were. Hassles with changing money didn’t make things easier and after a day and a half I was seriously making plans to go home. The rain stopped so I went for a walk to the Swedagon Paya. This is where I started to appreciate all the things Myanmar has to offer. Built on a 50 meter high hill the Swedagon Paya is the landmark of Yangon, if not from whole Myanmar. The pagoda itself is 100 meter high at totally covered with gold. On top is a beautiful golden parasol inlayed with thousands of diamonds and rubies. Around the pagoda numerous faithful were praying in the as many temples. It was fantastic.

The next days I explored to the center of Yangon to admire the old colonial houses and the Sule Paya. Although Yangon still hasn’t the sight of any other Asian capital it’s rapidly changing its identity, it seemed that time had stood still until recently, however, the first high buildings are already built. It’ll be a matter of time before it loses it’s unique character. I took my time to enjoy the atmosphere and ended up at the Batotaung Paya and the small but intimate marketplace in front of it. 

During one of the evenings I went to a restaurant for a perfect dinner and to watch traditional dances. 

I left Yangon with the night train to Mandalay, a trip which took 21 hours but which was surprisingly comfortable. In Mandalay it rained again for a change and in the lobby of my guesthouse I met Silvia, a Swiss girl who was also traveling alone. As we could get along pretty well we decided to do a couple of sightseeing tours in the area together. Our first trip was to the royal palace. It was surrounded by huge walls and a canal. 

Totally made from teakwood it looked pretty impressive. After some time over here we took a trishaw to the foot of Mandalay hill. On the top of the hill we had a beautiful view on Mandalay and the Ayeyarwady river. Slowly we made our way down the 1729 steps. 

On the way down we spoke to a friendly old couple who read our hand. He took it quite serious but to be honest I can’t imagine myself with the 3 children he predicted. One never knows though…

The next day we took a boat to Mingun, one of the ancient cities in the area with a fantastic collection of pagodas. 

We traveled by ox cart to the far end of Mingun and then slowly walked back. The most impressive sight was the ruin of the Mingun Paya, which was supposed to become the highest pagoda in south-east Asia but was never finished. Now it is the largest collection of bricks to be found in Asia.

Very impressive as well were the Hsinbyume paya and the Settawya Paya. The Mingun bell which weighs 101.4 ton is the largest intact bell in the world.  The atmosphere round the pagodas was fantastic. We enjoyed watching the locals in their daily routine.

In the afternoon we visited several small handicrafts centers around Mandalay. Watching how the gold leaves, which are used to cover Buddha statues and pagodas, were made was impressive. After we witnessed how the statues were carved out of stone and polished by hand we never looked in the same way when we visited temples. It made it all even more impressive than it looked at first sight. It was interesting to see how the marionettes and beautiful cloths were made. 

During one of the evenings we went to a theatre to watch a marionette show which was in one word amazing.

Mingun wasn’t the only ancient city in the neighborhood of Mandalay. On one of the days we went to Amarapura in which vicinity the longest teak wooden bridge in the world can be seen. The U Bein bridge has a total length of 1.2 km and is pretty impressive. 

We enjoyed the atmosphere and wandered through an old monastery with loads of pagodas. In each pagoda we found a beautiful Buddha image, larger than life. Our next stop was Ava, located on an island in the Ayeyarwady river. We explored the ancient city by horse cart as the ruins were to far away from each other to go by foot. Followed by local girls on bikes, who tried to sell us their products, we went from one temple to another. 

It was a beautiful experience, especially because we were able to see how the hair of monks was shaven off at the Bagaya monastery.  Our final destination of that day was Sagaing, a hill which is covered with monasteries and pagodas. Over 8000 monks and nuns live in 735 monasteries. Needles to say we didn’t know where to start looking, it was massive!

Both Silvia and myself had the same ideas of traveling and as everything worked out so fine we decided to stay together for a bit longer and traveled by boat to Bagan. It took us a day to get there. During the trip I wrote all my postcards which never arrived! It was very relaxing though so we arrived in Bagan ready for new impressions, impressions which came in large amounts!  UNESCO declared Bagan as world cultural heritage and just two days over there made it very clear why Bagan deserves that title. We traveled through the ancient city by horse cart. Our driver was an extremely friendly guy who knew a lot about the area. 

Everywhere where we looked we saw ruins of temples and pagodas. The sight which was captured with our eyes was almost surrealistic. One place was even more beautiful and impressive then the other, we could hardly believe what we saw. Thousands of temples were gathered in a large area, with frescos and Buddha statues inside. We climbed to the roof of several temples to enjoy the scenery.  Countless temples covered the horizon. It was pure magic! 

The second day of our exploration we visited a local market. Friendly people all over, colorful vegetables, fruits, fish and meat were offered, this created a fantastic atmosphere. 

We visited more temples but the absolute highlight was when our driver brought us to a little farm where all products were made in the traditional way. The owner and his family were extremely friendly (as all Burmese are) and demonstrated all skills. Weaving, the pressing of sesame oil, cigar making. We were treated on fresh watermelon while we watched all the skills. After each demonstration we were given the chance to try it ourselves. It was an interesting but most of all heart warming experience. Another place we visited was a small lacquerware factory. Seeing how skillful the lacquerware increased our appreciation for the beautiful products. Of course we didn’t leave without some of it in our luggage.

We left Bagan for a long journey to the Inley lake. On the way we stopped at mount Popa. We were able to witness the daily food providing to the monks in the village at the foot of Mount Popa On top of an old volcano a temple was built. There were loads on monkeys on the stairs which lead to the top. Once we were there we were mesmerized by the stunning view of the area. On the way down we met a friendly monk who told us about his journeys all over the world when he was still working on cargo boats.  

Lake Inley was another highlight of of our journey through Myanmar. The fishermen have a special technique to move their canoes forward. 

We visited a local market, a village which was built in the middle of the lake, a wonderful temple and finally the Nga Phe Kyuang monastery. The monks over there have trained cats to jump through a ring which was very entertaining. Sunset at the lake was fantastic.

As we did not feel like an 18 hour bus trip back to Yangon we decided to fly back to Yangon. We made daytrip to Bago to visit the pagoda over there and the reclining Buddha. With a length of 52 meter this is the largest reclining Buddha in the world. It was an impressive sight although we did not like the commercialized atmosphere. Much more enjoyable was our visit to a small temple in the area where 4 large standing Buddha’s formed a beautiful temple and several Buddha images were sitting in the garden. 

Overfilled with impressions it became difficult for me to handle more. The whole trip had been so fantastic that it was time to take a rest. I was really happy when Silvia invited me to join her to Phuket in south Thailand where she had booked a bungalow at Marina cottage, a luxurious resort where the jungle meets the sea. We went to the office of Thai Air in Yangon where I rescheduled my flight to Bangkok and was able to book a return ticket to Phuket. Over there we enjoyed our last week of our holiday. I went diving in the Amandan sea and together we enjoyed each others company, excellent food and a daily cocktail in the pool. Of course we did not skip a traditional Thai massage. It was the perfect ending of a more than perfect holiday.

Totally satisfied and relaxed I boarded the plane back home, dreaming of all the beautiful things that passed the last 5 1/2 week. My quest for a thunder dragon and golden pagodas had been more than successful. I enjoyed Bhutan tremendously and saw more golden pagodas in Myanmar than one could imagine. Was it real or just a dream?